Sarah Brownlee says some of her hardest times were when she first arrived in the Kootenays, about three years ago.
“The first two months I was here, I was on social assistance,” she says. “That was a bad joke. Trying to get from Castlegar, to get my cheque in Nelson. I was pregnant and dragging along a small child to the government offices there.”
That’s why transportation is one of the main issues Brownlee plans to bring to the table when she sits down with other people living in poverty plus advocates and workers on the BC government’s new poverty reduction advisory committee.
“To me the transit we have is ridiculous,” says Brownlee, who works several jobs now in Castlegar. “There’s no work available for a person from Castlegar in Nelson with transportation links like that. And even in our own town. Everyone expects you to drive here.
“We have all these great things here, but if you are in Genelle, you can’t get into town,” she says. “But there’s more affordable housing in Genelle or Robson. There are mobile home parks out there. But if you have zero transportation, then you are even more isolated. So that I feel is really struggling.”
Brownlee was chosen to be a voice for the Kootenays, for women, and the working poor.
“Some months I am doing okay, because I am on the border,” she says. “But I am only one payment away from problems. I am juggling bills, and I have to strategically plan my budgeting.”
Her experience has her taking her new responsibility seriously.
“When I was first asked, I was in shock,” she recalls. “I felt like ‘wow, somebody actually cares enough to listen to what we have to say.’”
Input on Poverty Reduction plan
As a member of the advisory committee, Brownlee will sit at the heart of the NDP government’s new poverty reduction plan.
The province announced last month it aims to reduce poverty by 25 per cent overall, and child poverty by 50 per cent, over the next five years.
Dubbed TogetherBC, the plan is designed to lift 140,000 people — 50,000 children among them — out of poverty.
As part of the advisory committee, Brownlee’s job is to bring a Kootenay perspective to issues like transportation, housing, and government services. She says it’s important for the suits in Victoria to hear that things are different in the Kootenays.
“Your poverty is compared to the Lower Mainland’s. But it’s a different form of poverty. Because here you don’t see people struggling on the street, like you do on the Downtown Eastside. There’s no comparison that way.
“Obviously there are different challenges, but poverty is poverty.”
One of her most pointed messages for the minister will be on housing.
“We all have that right — for safe, affordable housing and to bring our children up in a safe environment.
“But in the Kootenays, it’s hard to find safe, affordable rentals. It’s almost impossible, unless you have enough money to purchase a house. It’s hard enough to find any affordable housing, let alone safe, affordable housing. It may be safe compared to the Downtown Eastside, but not to Castlegar standards.”
When the province unveiled its poverty reduction strategy in March, outlining billions in spending over the next few years, Brownlee says she was quick to point out that problem.
“I explained how all of these things are perfect, and look nice on paper — Pharmacare, $10-a-day daycare — but unless you have safe, affordable housing, none of this matters. You can’t really get any of that unless you have housing.”
Brownlee says her experience is only one of thousands of people like her in the Kootenays, and she wants to hear from people about poverty issues that affect them. People are welcome to email her to discuss their concerns, firstname.lastname@example.org.
‘A direct conduit’
Advocates who work supporting the poor and struggling say Brownlee’s presence on the committee is a real boon for addressing the issue in the Kootenays.
“I think having that direct conduit to a minister can only be beneficial,” says the head of the Castlegar Community Harvest Food Bank, Deb McIntosh. “Because you don’t need it second or third-hand, you need to hear it from the source.”
“Because the message needs to get back to Victoria that the Kootenays are a different beast from Vancouver. Everybody knows that, but nobody seems to do anything about it.
“So I hope she can be that conduit, to bring a live, very real scenario to the minister, to say ‘this is my community, we deserve better.’”